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Why Did God Allow Israel To Be Enslaved?
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Becoming God's Firstborn
We asked before why we used the farmer’s declaration as the template for the way we retell the story of the Exodus. Maybe this is the answer. We’re not supposed to only retell what it is that happened; we’re supposed to take the farmer’s perspective. It’s not just a matter of getting out of Egypt with signs and wonders, it’s also about how we got into Egypt.
“Arami oved avi,” the farmer says: my father was a wandering Aramean.” Jacob was wandering around in Lavan’s house. That could have been enough, it could have been it. “Vayered Mitzraimah,” but he went down to Egypt. It doesn’t say God put him down in Egypt. He went down to Egypt. “Vayareu otanu ha-Mitzrim,”: and there the Egyptians oppressed us. They were terrible to us. In this whole declaration so far, there has been no mention of God. There’s just Yaakov who was wandering and Yaakov went down to Egypt.
Where was God? “Vayotzienu HaShem Elohim mi-sham,” the farmer says: and God took us out of there with an outstretched arm. God bailed us out because God had made a promise. And the farmer standing there with his basket of fruits, he is the living proof that God fulfilled that promise. It might have taken a long time. God would have been ready to do it as Yaakov came back to the land of Israel but mchirat Yosef happened, the sale of Joseph. It’d take a much, much longer time.
God is patient and God fulfilled that promise. The farmer is living proof. The promise went all the way back to Abraham. “Ger yihyeh zar’acha b’eretz lo lahem,” God had said to Abraham. You know you guys, you’re going to get yourself into this huge mess. Your children, they are going to be strangers in a land not their own. “Va’avadum,” and they are going to be enslaved there for a long, long time. I’m giving you a peek into history, but you know where I will be? I’ll be there to bail you out. I’ll take you out. I’ll save you from all of that.
The farmer understands this and we understand it when we quote the farmer’s words.
But I think we understand even more than this this night. Because this night doesn’t just revolve around the farmer’s declaration, it also revolves around a phantom presence, a presence that is no longer there at our table, but is there in all sorts of symbols. The Pesach offering. It was the centerpiece of the Seder night long ago. And that centerpiece helps us understand the deeper layers of our thankfulness to God because God didn’t just take us out, he did something else too. He redeemed us.
We drink four cups of wine on the Seder night because there were four verbs that God used to express his commitment to deliver us from Egypt. Three of those four verbs are easy to understand. “Vahotzeiti,” and I will take you out of Egypt. “Vahitzalti,” and I will save you from your terrible labors. “Valakachti etchem,” and I will bring you to me as a people and take you into the land.
All of that is easy to understand but there is one final verb. The fourth verb is “v’ga’alti etchem,” and I will redeem you. What does that add to the picture? What does it mean to be redeemed?
Whenever you go through a trauma, it’s not just enough to be saved from the trauma; the trauma leaves its mark. Somehow you need to be made whole. It’s all the more so when the trauma itself is in some way self-inflicted. It’s not just enough in those situations for someone to magically come along and save you. It’s in those situations that you need to be redeemed. How do you become whole when the wound that you’ve suffered in some way came from you. In those situations, to really be redeemed means to face the source of the wound. To look at what you did to make it happen. Not just to look at what you did, but to go through it again, but to choose a different ending. To replay your history, but to redeem that history, to repair it, to make yourself stronger. God gave us the chance to do just that with the Pesach offering. We have to face the horror of the sale of Joseph. We couldn’t just sweep that sorry chapter of our history under the rug. We need to replay the events, but to choose a different ending. We had to pull our brother out of the pit.
In our case, God redeemed us very, very deeply. Not only did he allow us to replay the acts that brought us down to Egypt, the sale of Yosef, and to somehow replayed those acts redemptively, but he also allows us to replay the dynamics behind those acts. Why did we do it? We replayed that too. Why did we do it? In Goats and Coats One, in Goats and Coats Two, we betrayed our brother. We deceived our father, all because we so desperately wanted to be father’s firstborn child. We struggled over the bachor. So how do you redeem that? You have to somehow take that flaw and turn it into a strength. But how?
Imagine you are a Principal of a school. You’ve got some kids that are trouble-makers. The funny thing is, the trouble-makers are always the diamonds and the rough. They’ve got energy, talent. But they are getting themselves into trouble. An uninspired Principal throws the kid out of the school. Another kind of uninspired Principal says “well the kid’s a wealthy donor, so let’s shove it under the rug.”
But a real Principal, a real father does something else. I had a principal like that in High School. His name was Rabbi Yosef Tendler. He seemed kind of scary and imposing to us but he sought out relationships with the kids in the school. He gave them jobs. They were the trouble-makers, but he would learn with them. He would invest in them. He would zero in on their talents, the talents that were getting them into trouble. And he would say “I could use that talent. Come on my team.” He made these kids shine. These kids today are leaders in the Jewish world. He cultivated them. He redeemed them.
God looked at us. What am I going to do with you guys? Generation after generation, you so desperately want to be first in father’s eyes. You want to be firstborn. You’re willing to do anything to be firstborn: deceive, betray. You know what? I’m your father too. I could use a firstborn. I’ve got a job for you. Would you be my firstborn?
“Bni bechori Yisrael,” God says about the Jewish people. You’ll become my firstborn tonight. It’s not an easy job. Would you take the god of the Egyptians, this goat, would you slaughter it and put the blood on your doors and say this is what it means to be a monotheist? Would you set that example for all the other children in my family about what it means to have loyalty to father? That’s part of the job. But there is another part of the job too. It’s not enough to swear fealty to me as father, because if I’m your father, if you really believe that I’m your father, you know what that means? It means you have brothers. They are a part of your family too.
Reach out to your brother and pull him out of the pit. The night that you become firstborn, turn your back on the deception, on the betrayal. Don’t feel that you have to sneak around to be the firstborn. Put the blood on the door and publicly in front of everyone, scream out “I will be your firstborn!” And as you do, look at your estranged brother, embrace him, and bring him back into your family. Isn’t that what father wants? What gives a father greater pleasure than to see his children embracing each other? To see his bachor—his firstborn—leading the way and teaching the family how to get along. We can have our differences, but you are my brother and I will always be there for you.
In a deep way, it’s why ethical monotheism is ethical monotheism. What do its ethics have to do with monotheism? Because if you believe that there is a God on high, one God for all, then you believe in the brotherhood of mankind. You believe that we’re all brothers. You believe I have to treat other humans being like brothers. There is a family because there is a father and if there is a father there is brothers. This Seder night, as you sit with your family around the table, as you proclaim your thankfulness to God for having taken us out, for having given us this mission to be his firstborn child, there’s a lot of family in the room. Not everybody is on the inside. Who’s on the outs? Which uncle? Which aunt? Which cousin is just politely tolerated but is excluded from real belonging? Maybe the Seder night, when we all sit together as a family, reach out and pull that one back into the family. If there is a Father in heaven, then they’re our brothers. It is hypocritical to proclaim your fealty to Father and to alienate brothers.
Pull your brother into the family. What would father want more than that?
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